REVIEW: Operation Crucible at Sheffield Studio Theatre

REVIEW: Operation Crucible at Sheffield Studio Theatre

By Phil Turner | 09/09/2021

REVIEW: Operation Crucible at Sheffield Studio Theatre


RHYTHMS of life — and death — are the beating heart of this compelling story of steel.

Pulsating sounds, rapid-fire dialogue and a superb acting ensemble create a world of blood, sweat, laughter and tears set in wartime Sheffield steelworks.

On December 12, 1940, Nazi Germany bombers — using the codename Operation Crucible - relentlessly targeted the city in an attempt to destroy the factories where parts for ships, planes, tanks and bombs were being made.

Bombs also fell on residential areas including the upmarket Marples Hotel in Fitzalan Square. One bomb decimated the seven-story building turning it into piles of rubble 15 feet high, killing 70 people. 

Operation Crucible is the story of four young steelworkers trapped in the basement of the hotel, which was also used as a bomb shelter, as they seek shelter running home from work.

There’s a poetic musicality to the piece, written by Kieran Knowles, who also plays one of the four. Immaculately directed with pace and imagination by Bryony Shanahan, it is performed wonderfully. 

The four talk about the magic of steel and their pride in the city. Close friends, they are pushed to the limit under the rubble.

Salvatore D’Aquila (Bob), Knowles as Tommy, Christopher McCurry (Phil) and James Wallwork (Arthur) draw fully rounded characters with only a bare stage and four stools. 

D'Aquila, a naturally gifted comic, is the butt of many jokes, but turns out to be the more poetic, recalling his dad likening their job to art. Knowles’ Tom is haunted by his dad killed on the Somme in WW1 who he never knew and can never live up to. McCurry is touching describing his newborn child but horrors are yet to come. 

Wallwork is a joy playing Arthur’s younger self taken to the steelworks by his father, exciting in the danger. There's a touching, tragic farewell to his beloved dad after the blitz.

Lighting (designed by Seth Rook Williams) — even for a time darkness — and sound (by Alex Faye-Braithwaite and Daniel Foxsmith) are used brilliantly to envelope the audience within the horrors and tragedies of war.  Sophia Simensky’s excellent set and costume designs are simple and immensely effective.

Poetic, down to earth language, shifting time periods and direct narrative combine as each player tells his tale, the tempo reinforced by repetition. The play also cleverly pays homage to the role played by women steelworkers.

During the course of 75 minutes, the steel mill, full of camaraderie and humour, becomes a dance floor, a rousing football game or a card school while fathers, mothers or children appear and disappear. Struggles, desires and passions are revealed in the face of life's tragedies.

A standing ovation at the end was a tribute to the best of what theatre is about. A bit of steel magic.

At the theatre until September 25.